The environment matters a lot more than we think. Humans tend to attribute behavior to the person and underweight the impact of the environment. We do this to ourselves.
Let’s say you are attending a conference. Maybe you got in late the night before and didn’t sleep all that well. The breakfast buffet has rows of enticing muffins and pastries. Normally you don’t eat muffins and pastries but this morning you do. Later, you regret not having fruit and yogurt and blame yourself but fatigue and opportunity were mostly to blame for your lack of willpower.
In 1973, John Darley and Daniel Batson performed a seminal study of this phenomenon, now referred to as the Good Samaritan Study. Study participants thought they were giving a talk but the study was really about the impact of environment (maybe culture?) on our behavior. Since all the study participants came from the same population (seminary students) their propensity to help others ought to have been about the same. Yet, the actual behavior of helping a person in distress as they walked by was dramatically affected by their sense of urgency – whether they thought they were late or not.
The results that only 10% of the “rushed” group used to distress me. Oh my, people are jerks! But I’ve now reframed it. Many organizations operate in a state of permanent rush and stress. Their people are not that helpful or empathetic. Examples from quick service restaurants to hospitals to the military come to mind. If we, as leaders, could remove as much artificial rush and unnecessary stress as possible it could have a dramatic impact on how our people behave.